A Kind of Intimacy

A Kind of IntimacyWell, that was disturbing. And amazing. I loved it.

Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel from 2009 is the story of Annie. As the book opens, narrator Annie is just moving into a new home, alone with her cat and eager for a fresh start. It quickly becomes evident to readers (and later to her new neighbors) that Annie has some secrets from her past. Her husband and daughter are mysteriously absent, and her stories about them change.

But Annie’s troubles don’t stay confined to her past. Shortly after moving into her new home, she becomes attached to her neighbor, Neil, and resentful of his girlfriend, Lucy. She listens to their movements, finds excuses to invite herself over, and starts engaging in what she seems to see as innocuous acts of anger, like putting garbage through their mail slot.

One of this novel’s pleasures is watching how Annie’s mind works, seeing how she interprets events to her own advantage and Lucy’s disadvantage. Sometimes, she appears merely socially awkward; she dresses oddly and serves food that’s not exactly fashionable. By this reading, Lucy appears to be a snob who looks down on Annie for being a little behind the times. But the more Annie reveals about herself, the clearer it is that Lucy’s apparent disdain stems from real unease. Annie herself is not always up-front about everything she’s done. She tells readers about her garbage “prank,” but she’s cagey about reading Neil and Lucy’s mail.

The book also skillfully shows how a sociopath might be able to win people over and gain control over a situation, if only temporarily. For much of the book, Annie’s neighbors try to write off her behavior and give her fresh starts. She gains the sympathy of Sangita, who attempts to broker peace between Lucy and Annie. Neil, too, tries a create a pleasant relationship, despite Lucy’s protests. Despite being extremely socially clumsy, Annie skates by on the fact that everyone assumes the best. Her neighbors are flawed, sure. Sangita is a gossip and Lucy is perhaps a snob, but they’re basically decent. The idea that someone could be as deceptive as Annie doesn’t cross their minds. Part of Annie’s deception, too, is self-deception. That’s one reason she’s able to hide her true nature. When she tells stories of her past, it’s easy to see how she misreads people. She mistakes politeness for friendship and sex for love.

I did feel some unease at Ashworth’s depiction of Annie’s obesity. Annie clearly has a food problem, and it would be easy to assume that Ashworth is equating being fat with being mentally ill. But that’s not necessarily true. Annie’s constant hunger is all of a piece with her character. She feeds her hunger without a thought for the consequences. It’s true of her sex life as well. In both cases, she’s not interested in pleasure. She’s trying to fill time or fill herself. It’s not clear that Annie’s even able to properly feel pleasure. It’s sad, really. Part of the genius of this book is the way Ashworth’s dive into Annie’s history shows that there are reasons to be sad for her without justifying her actions. There are reasons why Annie is the way she is, but these reasons are not excuses. Annie is bad news.

As far as the book’s payoff, I found it satisfying. One worry I had was that the book would lean too hard on a shocking reveal of Annie’s history, but Ashworth lets that story spin out gradually, not presenting it as a major twist, but just filling in details of a story whose outlines readers are likely to guess at early on. She also, interestingly, never goes past hinting at the most shocking aspect of the story. The tension in the narrative is less about what Annie has done in the past and more about what she will do next. And the book’s final moments offer at glimpse at what Annie has lost, leaving an impression of sadness instead of shock. It’s marvelously twisted in the very best way.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Wicked BoyIn July 1865, a 13-year-old London boy named Robert Coombs murdered his mother Emily. After the murder, he and his 12-year-old brother Nattie attended cricket matches, played games, and went fishing, all the while claiming their mother was away visiting family. When her body is discovered, rotting away in a back room, Robert stands trial for the crime.

Kate Summerscale presents a straightforward and focused account of Robert’s life, gathering information from court transcripts, newspaper archives, and more. She even finds someone who knew Robert, although that story is reserved for the book’s epilogue.

Summerscale sticks very closely to Robert’s own story, which, for the most part, is a good thing. She keeps tangents about penny dreadfuls and treatment of Broadmoor inmates brief, always coming back to Robert and what his experiences were like. She also avoids extensive speculation about what Robert was thinking, leaving most of that to those who testify in Robert’s trial. At times, this straightforward approach feels a little rote and lifeless, but I appreciated Summerscale’s discipline. And Robert’s story offers enough material of interest to keep me reading. It raises questions about evil, about nature and nurture, about mental illness, about the potential for reform, and about the innocence (or not) of children. Summerscale doesn’t pursue these questions in depth, but they’re very much present.

Much of Robert’s story had previously been lost to history, and Summerscale’s account of how she came upon his story and began researching it was, for me, the very best part of the book. This epilogue includes some speculation, although Summerscale never presents a definitive theory, and it includes her discovery of Robert’s ultimate fate. This portion of the book is truly remarkable. It’s the part I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. It’s an oddly lovely story in the end.

I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 17 Comments

The Givenness of Things

The Givenness of Things CoverIf you’re a regular or long-time reader of this blog, you’re probably aware that I’m a tremendous fan of the work of Marilynne Robinson. I’ve read and loved all her novels, and I marveled at her 2012 essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read BooksI consider her one of America’s greatest living writers. So I’m disappointed to tell you that this essay collection didn’t entirely work for me.

I will accept some of the blame myself. When I was reading this collection, I was having trouble focusing on anything, and these essays require focus. And when I was able to focus, I found that at times she was taking on topics that I’m simply not knowledgeable about. Some discussions of ontology and cosmology just went over my head. And I wasn’t quite interested enough to try to look things up and figure it out. (I blame my distracted state in part for this. I just didn’t want to work hard on my reading.)

However, I also think there were some problems within the essays themselves. I’ve seen some reviews that complained at her tendency to paint certain disciplines, notably neuroscience, with a broad brush. I’m not knowledgeable enough about this to make a judgment one way or another, but I was at times frustrated by Robinson’s lack of specificity when critiquing certain elements of contemporary thought. For example, several times she mentioned higher criticism of scripture, a discipline that can be fruitful but has its limits. Her view, however, seemed wholly dismissive, and I wanted to know which trains of thought trouble her. And because Robinson is a thoughtful and curious person, widely read, but not a specialist, I wondered how accurate some of her comments were. In one essay, she notes that the concepts of original sin and predestination have always been universal across Christian theology, which is not accurate unless you’re defining those terms very broadly.

However, all that said, I did find much to appreciate in this collection, as I always do when reading Robinson. Before ever reading this book, I already admired the essay “Fear,” as I had previously read it in the New York Review of BooksI also loved her insistence on God’s comprehensive and stubborn grace, a topic that comes up again and again, as in the essay “Theology”:

If [Jesus’s] presence in the Creation asserts the human as a uniquely sacred and intrinsic aspect of Being, and his presence on earth underscores this, then how are we to believe that he, call him Christ, call him God, would sweep almost the whole of our species out of existence, or into some sort of abyss, because of historical accident, or because of the terrible and persistent failures of our churches and of those who have been smug or cruel or criminal in his name. Granting all complexities, is it conceivable that the God of the Bible would shackle himself to the worst consequences of our worst behavior? Reverence forbids. Is it conceivable that the reach of Christ’s mercy would honor the narrow limits of human differences? It might be that the Christ I place at the origin and source of Being would be called by another name and would show another face to all those hundred of billions who are or were not Scots Presbyterians or America Congregationalists or anything remotely like them. This is my devoutest hope, not least because it promises our salvation, too. Maybe his constant blessing falls on those great multitudes who lived and died without any name for him, for those multitudes who know his name and believe they have only contempt for him.

Robinson is at her best here when she gets specific, as in the essay “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” where she digs into the Gospels to find meaning in Christ’s divinity (a doctrine I happen to cherish a great deal). I always enjoyed her explorations of Shakespeare, particularly the theme of reconciliation, which she discusses in the essay “Grace.” The fact that this collection didn’t live up to my expectations doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. It just means that my standards for Robinson are very high.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion, Short Stories/Essays | 2 Comments

We Love You, Charlie Freeman

We Love You Charlie FreemanThe Freeman family has an opportunity to be part of scientific history. Laurel Freeman learned sign language at a young age, but she hit a road block in her career as an interpreter because she refused to sign like a white person. She taught her daughters the black dialect of sign language, and thanks to the family’s fluency in sign language, they were accepted to move into the Toneybee Institute. There, they would gain a new family member, a chimp named Charlie, and they would teach him to sign and to live among humans.

Charlotte, the older daughter, attends the local high school, where her father teaches. Her younger sister, Callie, attends the junior high and longs for connection with anyone, but especially Charlie. And Laurel spends her days at the institute, loving Charlie as a son.

Although Charlotte is the book’s primary narrator, some chapters offer third-person narratives about how the other Freemans are coping with what quickly turns into a difficult year. In addition, there are excerpts from a narrative from 1929 by a woman who calls herself Nymphadora. Nymphadora also became involved in the studies at Toneybee, and it’s from her story that the racist roots of the institute’s work become evident.

Debut novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge takes on a lot of ideas in this engaging novel, and she acknowledges the complexity of each one. Charlotte falls in love for the first time with Adia, a girl at her school, and through Adia, she learns to find her voice for social justice. But she’s young, and her expressions are clumsy and possibly misdirected. Laurel knows Toneybee’s history, but she loves Charlie and the opportunity to mother him so much that she’s willing to overlook it. Her actions, and those of Nymphadora, raise questions about choice in the face of a corrupt system.

I think that much of this book revolves around the idea of choice and how free any of us are to choose. Who we are and who we will become are guided to some extent by our families, by society, and by our own internal drives, which we can’t understand. Charlie can only ever be a chimp, but living among humans alters some of his wants. He can’t help who he is. The Freemans have the ability to think through their choices, but they too face limits, some imposed by history, some by love, some by their own natures. I enjoyed watching each one grapple with these choices, and I appreciated that the right answers weren’t always clear.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 9 Comments

End of Watch

end of watchThis is the third in Stephen King’s trilogy about Bill Hodges, a retired police detective. The first two, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, were solid, fast-paced thrillers, nothing paranormal about them. Hodges and his two sidekicks, Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson, track down clues and find a couple of nasty killers; it’s satisfying and fun, if not especially deep. (I particularly liked Finders Keepers for the way King blew a drive-by raspberry at a couple-three literary authors.)

End of Watch, though, takes a turn into more… what would you say? typically Kingly territory. Brady Hartsfield, the vicious Mercedes killer from the first book, was in the background of Finders Keepers. In End of Watch, he takes center stage again as it becomes clear that he has new powers (why? there are a couple of reasons proposed, but it’s left a little fuzzy) that allow him to move objects with his mind, and, eventually, transfer his personality into other people’s minds. There, he begins to enact a complex and blackly evil plan to push people into an unstoppable wave of suicides, and so kill as many young people as he can — making up for those he failed to kill in Mr. Mercedes.

I suppose it’s not surprising that a 70-year-old author who’s been in a near-fatal car accident would be thinking a lot about mortality these days (see also his recent books Revival and Doctor Sleep. Not that he didn’t think about death a lot before, too, so there’s that.) The themes of life and death weave through this book in a nuanced way and at several different layers. One especially nice thing about End of Watch is that you can see the arc of the entire trilogy: while each book stands alone quite well, it’s also a pleasure to see the way King kept certain elements at a simmer in each book, reminding us, and how certain themes have been important the entire way through until they come to a head at the very end.

One thing that really doesn’t work well about this novel is that it leans heavily on technical know-how. Brady Hartsfield gets into other people’s minds by lightly hypnotizing them with a hand-held video game. Great! I just explained that to you in one sentence. Maybe — maybe! — you would need a little more explanation about how someone who was supposedly paralyzed and brain-dead could do that. Maybe a paragraph. This novel goes into so, so, so much more detail than it needs — agonizing detail — detail like someone from the American Civil War might not need. King uses the excuse of Bill Hodges being old and needing help with technical stuff, but ugh! It reminded me of Jo Walton’s saying in What Makes This Book So Great that people who aren’t used to writing science fiction sometimes don’t do it so well. King should do it better.

Overall, though, this was such an enjoyable book. The first two novels were detective novels, and this one turns into more of a supernatural novel that has a detective as its protagonist — but the transformation seems realistic, because King has been preparing us for it all along. I do recommend these books as good, middle-of-the-road King — keep them coming, and I’ll keep reading.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

How to Train Your Dragon

how to train your dragonI just returned from a short road trip to Portland, OR with my two children (aged, incredibly, 11 and 8.) The trip from where I live in Spokane is about 6 hours each direction, so naturally I got the requisite materials to make it go smoothly: snacks, a small bag of entertaining items, and a selection of audiobooks. On the way there, we listened to Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon. Since none of the three of us had read any of the books or seen any of the films, this turned out to be the perfect choice.

How to Train Your Dragon is about (and, actually, theoretically by) Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third. He is a small, weedy, rather useless adolescent Viking from the island of Berk, where Only the Strong Belong. Hiccup doesn’t belong (and neither does his best friend, Fishlegs.) He’s no good at bashyball or advanced rudeness; he can’t run fast or yell loudly; he isn’t heartless or cruel; and now that he’s supposed to go and get himself a dragon to train, he just knows he’s going to be exiled from the tribe instead.

Well, Hiccup does get his dragon, a Common or Garden dragon about the size of a Highland terrier, named Toothless (guess why.) The story of how Hiccup learns to train his dragon and makes himself a hero The Hard Way is consistently funny, even if it borrows heavily from Tolkien in spots. It’s not… shall we say… unpredictable? I rather wished that the message that was forming early in the book (that there should be space for ordinary people in a tribe, and that Only the Strong Belong is kind of a bogus slogan) had been fully delivered. But it’s a lot of fun, nonetheless, and my kids gasped and ooohed and laughed along with it, right up to the end.

The one thing that did surprise me about this book was that there were absolutely no girls in it. Not a single girl. There was one Viking mother in the background, but she had no lines. Given that this book was written in 2003, I found that… odd. It didn’t by any means spoil my enjoyment, but I haven’t read a book written about an all-male environment — and certainly not one for children — in yonks. Huh!

I haven’t told you the very best part, though. The narrator of this audiobook (and part of the reason I chose this one) is David Tennant. He did the most amazing job (because of course he did) and I enjoyed every single second of his performance. It was an absolute joy to listen to, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly as an audiobook. I think I’ll look for more of what he’s read!

Posted in Audiobooks, Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 12 Comments

What Makes This Book So Great

what makes this bookSo, what makes What Makes This Book So Great so great? (Ask me if I’ve been waiting to write that line.) Well, first, let’s get clear exactly what it is: it’s a collection of blog posts that Jo Walton wrote for Tor.com, and the subtitle is Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Essentially, this book is what this blog is, and what many of my favorite book blogs are: it’s someone who’s a Constant Reader (and I do mean Constant, more on that in a bit), telling other readers about some of the books she has loved for years and goes back to all the time and wants everyone to have the chance to read. It’s appreciation, in the best sense: not blind to faults or to how time may have changed our reading of these books, but enthusiastic about the wonderful ideas and writing and characters they offer, and can offer again and again to a re-reader.

It took me a little while to get into the rhythm of the book. These are blog posts, not essays, so each piece is short — about three pages long. Walton usually gives a plot summary (though she tries to avoid major spoilers in most cases), and then gets into what, to her, is obviously the fun part: discussion of What Makes This Book So Great. Again, this is appreciation, not criticism — in some cases, Walton is all but gushing over the interesting way an author solves a problem, or re-thinks time travel, or has such compelling characters that you don’t notice that the time travel is basically pointless, or whatever. This makes her chapters incredible fun to read, whether or not you’ve read the book in question, whether or not you even have any interest in reading the book. It makes her feel like a friend who has your best interest at heart, someone who’s searching her shelves for the right book for you, something you’re really going to like.

And I liked a lot of them! Science fiction and fantasy aren’t my primary genres, but I read a reasonable dose of them from time to time, and I was pleased to see I’d read about 10% of the books she recommends. I wanted to read at least ten or fifteen more, too, which is a good proportion these days. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she has the gift of making everything sound interesting.

The bulk of the book is about science fiction. There were certainly pieces about fantasy, but far fewer. There were also two cases where Walton did appreciations of every book in a series, and that was just too many. If you’d already read and enjoyed the series, you might have been nodding along in grinning agreement, but if (like me) you hadn’t, you’d got the sense of what the series would be like by the first book, and didn’t want to read about all of them. Still, there are 130 (!) entries here, so it didn’t really matter; I could skip dozens and there would be dozens more for me to choose from.

 

Sprinkled here and there among the book-appreciation are a few think-pieces that were interesting and useful (“Do you skim?” “The Suck Fairy” “Literary criticism vs talking about books”.) One of the most interesting, to me, was the piece on reading as feast or famine. Jo Walton says she’s always seen books as a scarcity, as if there will never be enough. This is partly because she’s an extremely fast reader and partly because she’s rather… selective. She claims she could read through an entire local library in a couple of months, considering how many of the books she’s already read, how many genres she doesn’t like, and how many authors she doesn’t enjoy. Re-reading, then, is crucial; she’s read certain books so often that she’s memorized them and can’t really read them any more. This is completely foreign to me. I’m a reasonably fast reader, too, but the idea of ever getting through everything I want to read, even in a modestly-proposed lifetime, is nonsense. Reading is feast; re-reading is luxury, is completeness that I scarcely have time to wallow in.

I also liked the piece on science fiction/ fantasy reading protocols. Walton makes the argument that people who regularly read SF understand how to gather information, pick up clues from worldbuilding, identify what is important and what isn’t. People who don’t regularly read this genre often miss these sorts of protocols, and then, if they make a foray into writing that genre, they create annoying SF, with awkward information-dumps where they don’t belong. Since I’ve seen this happen, it was nice to have the phenomenon named!

I got the recommendation for this book from Jeanne, and all I can say is that I wish there were a whole series of these books out, by all sorts of authors. Collections! Anthologies! I want to know what books everyone thinks are So Great, and why. Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, Nick Harkaway, Marilynne Robinson, Neil Gaiman, Dorothy Sayers, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov. Everyone. Sock it to me, baby, hit me one more time.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 18 Comments

The Secret Place

secret placeI’ve been reading Tana French’s novels about the Dublin Murder Squad for a couple of years now, making my way through them with huge enjoyment. She writes so well, and her characters are always well-rounded, by which I mean that they are flawed and angsty like any good modern detective, but also capable of connection and joy. She’s not afraid of leaving a few loose ends, which is, I admit, an acquired taste, but I think it’s well-earned.

The Secret Place, her most recent novel, takes place at a girls’ boarding school, St. Kilda’s. A few months before the action begins, a young man, Chris Harper, from the nearby boys’ school, was murdered on the grounds of St. Kilda’s. Why was he there? Who went to meet him? The detectives thought it would be simple to find out, but the silence was total. Until now: Holly Mackey, the daughter of detective Frank Mackey, finds a postcard at The Secret Place, the school’s anonymous gossip board. The caption reads, “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.” Instead of bringing the card to her father, Holly brings it to Stephen Moran, the only other detective she knows, and the wheels are set in motion.

This book runs along two tracks: flashbacks to the months leading up to Chris Harper’s death, and the single-day investigation led by the uneasy pairing of Stephen Moran (normally working Cold Cases) and Antoinette Conway (clawing to keep a place on an unfriendly Murder Squad.) The book seesaws back and forth between past and present, between the point of view of Moran and the point of view of the four girls — Holly, Rebecca, Julia, and Selena — whose profound friendship put a boy’s life at risk.

French does a surprisingly good job recreating the intensity of teenage friendship — how much it matters to have women who will back you up no matter what, whose friendship makes the pressures of the rest of the world (parents, academics, boys, self-image, clothes, smoking, whatever) go away for a while. She understands that this is a kind of vital, natural magic, and there’s some ambiguity here about whether this is really magic or whether it’s the kind of thing the girls will later take for granted as sheer imagination. The same goes for secrets, love, ambition — what’s real and what’s fake? The adults watching the intense mix of relationships can’t tell, and sometimes neither can the girls.

One thing that affects the investigation is a deep suspicion based in class. Moran wants what these girls have: he finds it beautiful. Conway, on the other hand, distrusts all of it and wants to burn it to the ground; she trusts nothing she’s told and can’t reach out empathetically to any of the girls. This makes it impossible for her to imagine trust among the girls — the depth of which is the basis not only for their wild, happy, free friendship, but also for the murder.

I have to admit that I was deeply annoyed by the voice of the teenagers in this book. (“Excuse me? Hello? I don’t think so? She’s such a fat cow!” and so on.) It may be absolutely realistic, but oh, how it grated on my nerves, especially since it was more than half of the book. What I wouldn’t have given for some unrealistic, adult-ish teen dialogue! I know, I know, way harsh, Tai.

Still, even if this isn’t my favorite of French’s books — even if it was a bit slow-paced and a bit unlikely — it’s head and shoulders above a lot of what’s out there. French is so good at pinpointing relationships — the up-and-down love and loneliness and tug on the heart that go into creating something new. I look forward to her new book (out in August!) and I do recommend the whole series.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 9 Comments

I Am No One

I Am No OneHistory professor Jeremy O’Keefe is worried about his memory, among other things. He’s made plans to meet a student to discuss her work, and when she doesn’t show, he’s surprised to find that he previously sent her an email cancelling their meeting. He’s started receiving packages of paper listing all the websites he’s visited, phone calls he’s made, and so on. And he seems to be running the same stranger wherever he goes. It is all in his head, or is someone after him?

I don’t know if author Patrick Flanery intended Jeremy to come across as a self-important ass, but he did. The early chapters of the book feature a great deal of his pontificating about East German cinema and art about surveillance and regretful musings about his past. The fact that this is his field of study would seem too on-the-nose in a novel about potentially being spied on, but his academic interest could be the source of his (possibly unfounded) paranoia, so I’ll let that go.

Whatever happened in his past to make him so fretful is unclear at first. He had to leave his position at Columbia years earlier, and he took a position at Oxford, which kept him away from his daughter and his estranged wife. Now he’s back at NYU, building a relationship with his daughter, who has married into wealth and power. Jeremy comes across as resentful about the whole thing, and he certainly gives the impression that his behavior has not always been appropriate.

So Jeremy is terrible, but I could live with that, especially since it sometimes appeared that I wasn’t supposed to trust or like him. His self-pitying monologues are tedious reading, however, and the book doesn’t really pick up until he starts divulging one of his secrets, the one that he thinks might have put him in danger now.

When Jeremy was teaching Oxford, he had a affair with a student from Egypt named Fadia. Fadia has a brother who has gotten involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, but Fadia has no contact with him, and Jeremy is not the sort to hold that association against her. He is, however, the sort to become fascinated with people from the Middle East. He recalls an Egyptian student named Amir whom he liked to follow on the bus when he was studying in Georgetown. Jeremy is careful to assure us that his interest in this young man was not in the least sexual, no no no, but he was always aware of his odor. (Have I mentioned that Jeremy is gross?)

I kept hoping that Jeremy’s lack of self-awareness would eventually fold in on him, but the story never quite gets there. Flanery plays with the idea that Jeremy is losing his mind, but that angle doesn’t fully pay off. Instead, the plot turns into a not-very-original story about whether a man has gotten roped into giving money to extremists and is now being monitored because of it. I’d rather have heard Fadia’s story, although Flanery might not have been the right person to tell it. Still, it would be something different, whether Fadia is in league with her brother or not.

But apparently Fadia is too “different” for this story to be about her. Who cares if an Egyptian student is followed and monitored just because of her family? There’s a point toward the end of this book that I found depressingly relevant. A man tells Jeremy that his story of being monitored matters because “people could relate to it.” Jeremy has the resources and privilege to bounce back if his story is revealed. His story will make white American people care about privacy loss. It’s true even if he’s terrible, even if he took advantage of a vulnerable young woman, even if he’s kind of racist, even if he’s a snob. I don’t know if this was the intended message of the book, but it’s the one I like—by which I mean, it’s the one I believe and am glad to see pointed out.

I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Netgalley.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Darkness Visible

darkness visibleIn 1989, Vanity Fair published William Styron’s account of his struggle with deep depression, suicidal ideation, hospitalization, and eventual recovery. Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness is an expanded version of this piece, beginning with a trip he took to Paris to accept an award for his writing. On that trip he was already suffering from depression, but thought he would be able to cope, particularly with the help of his wife. Instead, the brain fog and bewildering isolation that accompany the disease caused him to make several major blunders (including mortally offending the person giving him the award, and losing the $25,000 check.) He was able to realize that things not only weren’t right, but were getting substantially worse, and on his return to the US, he saw a doctor to try and get some help.

I’ve read a lot of memoirs about depression and other mental illnesses, but most of them were written more recently than Styron’s. I get the impression that Darkness Visible is one of the first pieces — not to talk about depression itself, that’s been going on for a long time in one form or another — but to talk about it as a chemical and neurological illness, something to be unashamed of and to seek treatment for like any other illness. He compares his case to the (sadly, many) other writers who have suffered from depression and committed suicide over the years. I don’t need to give you the long list; I’m sure you can fill in the blanks yourself. He says that when Primo Levi committed suicide, and there was a pervading sense of shame that someone who had come out of the Holocaust with such resilience could succumb to depression in such a way, that he wrote a letter to the New York Times explaining that this just means that people don’t understand the true grimness of what depression is really like.

Styron’s tone is about as detached and even clinical as you can be when talking about your own utter wretchedness and despair. He talks about how difficult medicating depression can be, and how careless prescription of Halcion probably made his depression much worse. He talks about how many people depression affects — not just writers! — and how platitudes didn’t help, but hospitalization did. There weren’t the passages I’m used to in memoirs like this, about the roots of the depression, childhood pain and suffering or  reckless behavior, but Styron’s language is wry and vivid nonetheless. It’s full, throughout, of sparks like this:

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

The title of this book comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

No light; but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all, but torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed

With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.

Of course, it ends well. Styron gets the help he needed, and comes out of his depression, though with the knowledge that it could return. It’s far from the usual battle/triumph metaphor you sometimes see in illness memoirs; more like the darkness becoming invisible again, for a time, and being profoundly grateful for that.

This book is very short — only 80 pages, which I suppose is what you’d expect from something that was first published in Vanity Fair. I found it fascinating, troubling, beautiful reading.

Posted in Nonfiction | 11 Comments